I may have needed less convincing than most, but Broken60 (an offshoot of Ruairidh Law aka The Village Orchestra’s Broken20 label) have published a manifesto of sorts which outlines the reasons why they feel they feel the need, in 2012, to start a cassette label. Dave Donnelly aka Production Unit, who runs the tape wing, rightly focuses not on the purely physical aspects of the object itself, even if a reference to licking the cassette’s cover borders on the fetishistic, but on the interrelationship between the object, the sound that is produced, and the emotions that are evoked. The format demands that we take the time to think more broadly about how we experience music, as being more than just the waves of sound which emerge from speakers/headphones, crashing repeatedly into the crevices of our cranium. The first release on Broken60, Magnet Marsh by 10-20 feels like it was purposefully designed to permit an exploration of this.
As soon as I first squeezed the play button on my Walkman, it was obvious that 10-20 had approached this work in a different way from previous albums, like his self-titled release on the late Highpoint Lowlife label. In comparison, Magnet Marsh is a significantly dequantised piece of work. It opens with sonic events scattered like iron filings, before this sound dust pulls itself together into bigger, heavier shapes. But even when this first beat appears, it is off-grid, a snare and one-two bass pulse which seems to decelerate throughout each bar, a heartbeat constantly returning to rest, ever heading towards sleep. The percussion which later emerges can’t be nailed down with any sort of precision, patterns dissolve when you examine then, much as text evaporates in a dream when you try to read it.
Such an approach to rhythm is by no means new to electronic music. Burial famously operates in an entirely dequantised manner, and some of Magnet Marsh is reminiscent of his more abstract moments; dark, wonky and woozy sections sharing something of the same late night, mood-altered atmosphere. Parts of this music too may be best listened to at 4am, sheltering from rain in a bus shelter, dappled in the fragments of neon light from a smashed 24 hour off-license window; fittingly the text in the cover refers to Magnet Marsh as “a place behind the enterprise zone retail park”.
However, it also places it “adjacent to the ancient city of teotihuacan”. 10-20 draws from a wider palette of instrumental sounds than Burial, disorientatingly so at times: while there are pianos and female voices, there are also middle eastern and African instruments in the mix, birdsong too, samples from who knows where or when. But it isn’t just the difference in sources which cause you to lose your bearings, the way they are processed is more extreme, resulting in far more unrecognisable sounds, as if recalled over a great length of time, or in that confusing re-emergence from deep sleep.
And the tape itself is a big fact in all of these sensations. Not just because it adds its own dislocating sense of it being from another era, right from the moment your first pop it open and lick the cover. And not just because of the dense static drizzle which ultimately soaks everything, either. The most important factor is that 10-20’s music is clearly designed with the format’s capabilities and limitations in mind. That granularity and haziness persists in an accentuated manner throughout, and sounds can be muffled, varispeeded, or otherwise distended. The pitch seems to shift and melt, images are smeared into bands of colour to create a sense of illucidity, much in the manner you might associate with Boards Of Canada. At times it is like listening to a physically damaged or demagnetised tape, with dropout being used creatively as part of the track’s shifting rhythmic framework, or with the distortion becoming almost as overpowering as a Ben Frost piece.
Ultimately, the fact that this is a cassette release can lead you to think in a more dequantised manner. There are technically 21 tracks on Magnet Marsh, but as my Walkman doesn’t permit me to skip easily or quickly between them, or tell me what they are called as I’m listening, I don’t think of the album in such discrete chunks, but rather as two side-long continuums of sound. Broken60 acknowledge this by also supplying buyers of the tape with a hissy mp3 download ripped from the cassette in precisely this two-piece form, as if to try to preserve as much of the intended experience as the mp3 format permits. And that is ultimately a further recognition of what Magnet Marsh is: not just something you listen to, but something you experience. Something you hear, see, feel and, if that is your thing, taste.